Wise Men Say: Positive performances are not enough to save Sunderland
As the seconds ticked down at The Den, Bryan Oviedo picked up the ball and kissed it in the hope that this final kick of this finely poised game would yield a Sunderland victory.
As the Costa Rican full-back ran up for to deliver the last cross of the afternoon, the murmur of “if this doesn’t go in, we’re going down” reverberated around the away end.
The ‘Hail Mary’ ball sailed over the pack of jostling players in the penalty area and, with that, another opportunity passed the Wearsiders by.
While the notion that a single chance could define where Sunderland find themselves playing come August is slightly melodramatic, it did provide a microcosm of what this season has been like.
Despite Millwall’s good recent form and impressive home record, this was a side there for the taking.
The Londoners had been rocked by the unexpected nature of Oviedo’s stunning opener, but, like in many games this season, Sunderland failed to capitalise on this advantage.
Like with performances at Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End, Brentford and Hull City, the visitors were not bold enough to force the issue and close the game out.
Once again, Sunderland invited pressure, showed little to no attacking intent and it was only a matter of time before Millwall broke through and equalised.
It’s the same script, just with different actors, and supporters have been subjected to it time and time again.
Manager Chris Coleman may point to the improved character of the side and the fact that they have dug deep to ensure they didn’t lose, but games are running out fast and positive performances are simply not enough any more.
Sunderland are staring down the barrel of entering the third tier of English football for only the second time in their history and, while character is important, without points on the board it is, well, pointless.
Sides around the bottom three seem capable of putting a run of wins together, while whenever Sunderland have even the tiniest glimmer of momentum it is snuffed out by a calamitous individual error or insipid showing.
There have been countless “must-win” matches that have come and gone without so much of a whimper. Even when a victory is registered, it tends to be followed up by a demoralising loss.
Saturday was an indication that theere is still some fight in this side.
Jason Steele put in the sort of goalkeeping performance expected when he was first purchased, Oviedo’s goal was an absolute delight, the return of Lamine Kone looked to shore up the defence and wingers Aiden McGeady and Callum McManaman worked tirelessly.
But it was still not enough.
With so many of our rivals unable to play at the weekend, due to the adverse weather conditions, this was a chance to apply the pressure on those above, but it has passed us by.
A demanding fixture schedule lies ahead with games against promotion chasers Aston Villa, Preston and Derby County coming in quick succession before huge games against Sheffield Wednesday, Reading and Burton Albion.
There is now zero margin for errors. Points need to accrued otherwise it’s “hello, Luton Town” on a Tuesday night.
Just as with Oviedo’s kiss on the final cross of the afternoon, Sunderland’s safety hopes are looking increasingly like a hit and hope.
* The Wise Men Say podcast is available from every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction. You can stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes